How secret evidence led to a life sentence

When a Baltimore prosecutor asked jurors to convict Antoine Pettiford

of murder, she told them to review the evidence. But more compelling material -- kept secret from Pettiford -- could have set him free.

July 11, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,Sun Staff

It was a brazen slaughter on an east-side street. Baltimore prosecutor Nancy Beth Pollack told the jurors she knew who pulled the trigger and that by the end of the trial, so would they. The evidence homicide detectives pieced together pointed to one man.

Antoine Jerome Pettiford.

"I'm confident, because of this evidence," she said, "you will find this defendant guilty."

What jurors didn't know that day in Baltimore Circuit Court was that evidence had been kept secret -- material that pinned the slaying on other suspects. Even though the law requires prosecutors to disclose evidence, critical documents were never provided to Pettiford or his attorney.

At 24, Pettiford, a petty drug peddler with a long criminal past, was convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his life.

But two years after the slaying, some of the secret evidence surfaced in U.S. District Court, leading to the conviction of another man for the same murder. It is now clear that Pettiford was imprisoned because of questionable conduct by prosecutors and homicide detectives.

The Pettiford case is part of a pattern in Baltimore, where prosecutors and police have ignored state and federal laws by failing to turn over evidence to those accused of crimes.

The pattern is confirmed by a review of criminal cases and a computer analysis of court records by The Sun; interviews with defense lawyers, judges and prosecutors; and a federally funded study of problems at the courthouse.

Not revealing evidence has led to wrongful convictions, trial delays and freedom for suspected criminals. Over the past two years, charges against at least eight defendants -- including attempted murder and cocaine trafficking -- have been dismissed because prosecutors violated laws requiring the disclosure of evidence, known as "discovery."

In the case against Pettiford, a series of police reports was never disclosed, including a witness statement that identified other suspects and provided a detailed description of the man who later pleaded guilty to the murder.

Why that statement didn't surface for nearly four years is a question that pits prosecutors against police. The homicide detective told a judge under oath that he gave the statement to Pollack. The prosecutor said that she never saw it and that that's why it was never disclosed. Without the benefit of the statement and other evidence, Pettiford and his attorney didn't have a chance.

To this day, Pettiford denies any involvement in the slaying of Oscar Edward Lewis Jr. On April 30, he agreed to take a polygraph examination. To conduct the exam, The Sun hired James K. Murphy, chief of the FBI's polygraph division in Washington until his retirement this year.

In the three-hour test, Murphy asked Pettiford whether he shot Lewis, planned the killing or was present during it. He answered "no" to each question.

"Mr. Pettiford was truthful when responding to the above listed relevant questions asked during the polygraph examination," Murphy wrote in a report.

After the exam, Murphy said he doubted Pettiford's guilt.

"If I was running this investigation, I would tell the agents to go back to the streets," he said. "They got the wrong guy."

A violent dance

The case against Pettiford unfolded five years ago. It was close to 5:30 on a Saturday afternoon when a black Mazda RX7 stopped on Milton Avenue in East Baltimore. Dante Lamont Todd, then 22, a tall drug dealer with movie-star good looks, hopped out and said goodbye to his best friend of 19 years, Oscar Lewis.

Lewis pulled up to the stoplight at Preston and Gay streets. On the corner, inside Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, a choir was rehearsing for Sunday services. While Lewis waited for the light to change, two men ran up. They pointed a MAC 11 machine pistol and a 9 mm handgun through the passenger window and opened fire.

As the bullets slammed into Lewis, he jerked and jumped in the driver's seat, his body performing a violent dance. After firing a dozen times into the Mazda, the two gunmen ran off, disappearing down a side street.

Minutes later, Todd's pager went off. His girlfriend told him that Lewis had been shot. He ran to the intersection and watched medics pull his best friend from the car. Seven weeks after turning 22, Lewis was dead.

Todd knew the bullets were also meant for him. He believed he knew who was to blame. Within 24 hours, Todd provided Baltimore homicide detectives with details about what prompted the killing.

But the evidence would stay secret for years.

Closing a case

Bobby Patton, a Baltimore homicide detective with street smarts and a reputation for closing cases, began gathering clues to the April 30, 1994, slaying. He found that shell casings recovered from a robbery and shooting six days earlier near Volcano's, an East Baltimore nightclub, matched casings collected from the murder scene.

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